When the Orioles agreed to a contract with pitcher Jordan Lyles just before the lockout began, it was signficant news. Not just because Lyles was getting a one-year contract for $7 million, the most since Mike Elias became the team’s general manager, but because Lyles is a right-handed starter.
As recently as 2018, Oriole right-handers started 159 of 162 games. Their only left-hander, Josh Rogers, started the other three. Rogers’ first start didn’t come until the team’s 133rd game on August 28th.
During the Orioles’ last stretch of contention, they were predominantly right-handed. Wei-Yin Chen was their only left-handed starter from 2013-2015, and Wade Miley was their sole lefty in 2016 and 2017.
In 2012, Chen, Brian Matusz, Zack Britton, Joe Saunders, Dana Eveland and Randy Wolf combined to start 70 games. Once the Orioles inserted John Means into the starting rotation, the complexion of the rotation changed dramatically.
Means made 27 of the Orioles’ 34 left-handed starts in 2019. In the 60-game 2020 season, 29 of the starts were made by left-handers.
Last season, Means (26), Keegan Akin (17), Bruce Zimmermann (13) Alexander Wells (8), Zac Lowther (6) and Wade LeBlanc (1) combined for 71 starts. This coming season, it’s possible that left-handers will make more than half of the Orioles’ starts.
Means and Lyles are expected to be the Orioles’ top two starters. The other three could come from Akin, Lowther, Wells and Zimmermann. Mike Baumann, whose only major league appearances have come in relief, and Dean Kremer, who has faltered, are the only two right-handers in the organization who appear to have a shot at cracking the rotation.
Grayson Rodriguez, the top starting prospect in the organization, is right-handed, and so is Kyle Bradish. Two of the three starters added to the 40-man roster in November, DL Hall and Kevin Smith, are left-handers.
Bradish, Hall, Rodriguez and Smith could pitch for the Orioles in 2022, but it’s not likely to be at the beginning of the season.
The Orioles’ reliance on left-handed starters isn’t by design. All the candidates to start the season, except for Lyles, were in the organization when Elias arrived in November 2018. So were Hall and Rodriguez, though Bradish and Smith came to the Orioles in trades.
Once the lockout ends, the Orioles are expected to search for additional starting pitching, and it could be right-handed.
The left-handed starters didn’t cause the Orioles to change the dimensions in left field, Elias said. It was a reaction to the way the game has been played in recent years.
It’s possible that in a year or two the starting rotation could look much different, and the Orioles will again have a predominantly right-handed staff.
Another look at utility candidates: When Buck Showalter managed the Orioles, he said that the ability to play shortstop was the most important quality a utility player could have. He thought if they could play shortstop, they could play anywhere.
If Brandon Hyde agrees, Jorge Mateo would seem to be the most likely player to win a utility job. Assuming Ramón Urías enters spring training as the starting shortstop, Mateo, who started 15 games at short, 12 at second and one each in left and right field, would qualify as the most versatile of the infielders.
Jahmai Jones, who started 10 games at second base last season, and Shed Long, who was signed to a minor league contract, haven’t played shortstop in the majors.
Jones played each of the outfield positions in the minor leagues before his conversion to second base. Long played second and left field and one game at third in 110 games during the past three seasons with the Seattle Mariners.
Richie Martin, who also will be in camp on a minor league contract, is primarily a shortstop. If there’s an injury to Urías or Mateo, Martin, who also plays second, could return to the 26-man roster.
Rougned Odor, signed as a free agent on November 30th, was a second baseman until last season when he started 29 games at third for the New York Yankees.
Kelvin Gutiérrez, who played well at third late in the 2021 season, has scant experience elsewhere.
The Orioles’ top infield prospects, Gunnar Henderson and Jordan Westburg, play shortstop and third base, but neither has played above Double-A.
Terrin Vavra, who is on the 40-man roster, had two games at shortstop for Bowie but missed most of last season because of a back injury.
Urías might be the most versatile of all. He started 36 games at short, 27 at second and 10 at third, though he has no major league outfield experience.
It would not be surprising to see the Orioles sign another infielder with experience at shortstop when the lockout ends.